After the volatile arguments about restrictions and mandates that dominated the pandemic, Kentucky Republicans were always going to make the 2023 gubernatorial race one big messy and emotional tirade against Gov. Andy Beshear.
But, when state Rep. Savannah Maddox from Dry Ridge officially entered the race on Monday, it became pretty clear a dominant Republican strategy is going to be straight-up crashing and burning every issue directly into fearmongering, buzzwords and opportunistic, divisive culture wars.
“We remember Beshear’s lockdowns and mandates,” Maddox says in her first campaign ad. “We wonder how this could have happened in America. It’s not leadership, it’s tyranny.”
The ad accuses the governor of damaging the economy, keeping kids away from classrooms and infringing “on the right to practice our Christian faith.”
There’s no mention of the deadly virus that led to the shutdowns. Not one. Because, for her purpose, there’s no sense in making people remember reason — it’s just more effective to capitalize on fear, because that’s the playbook.
Maddox, who sits at the far-right wing of state Republicans, groups herself into the “liberty” movement, one of the newest sprouts of the Tea Party tree that recently caused a few upsets of longterm Republican incumbents during the primary election in May in Northern Kentucky.
The “liberty” sect of the Republicans came into the limelight during the COVID shutdown, the same time when Maddox was at her most controversial. In May of 2020, Kentucky Democrats called on Republican leaders to censure Maddox after she riled up a crowd — which included 3 Percenters — who were angry with the governor in front of the Capitol. Democrats argued that Maddox’s actions intensified the actions of the protesters, who, on a later day, hung an effigy of Beshear from a tree. She also caught some heat after posing with a man who flashed a white supremacist hand gesture in their photo.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, the other high-profile candidate on the early Republican ticket for governor, is set to bring the same sort of battle to Beshear, although in a more subtle way. In 2020, Cameron sued Beshear over COVID-19 measures and whether or not the governor overstepped his executive authority.
“Andy Beshear is not uniting Kentucky,” Cameron said in his first campaign ad. “This governor does not reflect our values.”
Cameron, a Mitch McConnell protege, comes from the school of being careful with your words and aggressive with your power plays.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition, Cameron and Maddox, because it seems like the GOP is hedging its bets. The plan is to clearly paint Beshear as a power-hungry extremist, but they’re going to beta test in the primary who they want their artist to be, an unpredictable mad-dog candidate in Maddox that can inflame and distort, or a more smooth and manipulative candidate in Cameron, who has more poise and charm.
Either way, the attacks are incoming, but their information war is going to be uphill.
According to a Morning Consult poll in April, Beshear is the most popular Democratic governor in America, with 59% of registered voters in Kentucky approve of Beshear’s job performance while 36% disapprove.
Plus, it’s hard to think back on the early stages of the pandemic or the aftermath of the tornado damage in Western Kentucky, and not recall Beshear’s sincerity and dedication. On the economic front, there’s the historic battery park investments and wildly low unemployment rate. And anyone calling a Beshear a “radical liberal” doesn’t have their finger on the pulse of the political spectrum.
At this point, they’re just seeing what faulty narratives can stick.
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